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Immigrant Roots- Cris Mercado

My name is Cris Mercado. I came to the United States in 1984 when I was 4-6 years old from the Philippines. When you’re young you have no choice, so when my parents decided to leave I went along for the ride. We didn’t settle in New York until I was 6 years old; my earliest memories were in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My family and I lived with a relative for a short period of time, where we slept on the floor. Eventually, we ended up settling in a basement apartment in Queens.

We lived in a part of Queens that had a Filipino population, so it did aid in my transition to the culture of the U.S and I’m sure it helped my parents assimilate to the country. There are still times when I think my parents and how they are still trying to adapt. They assimilated in the sense that they can work and make ties in the neighborhood, but they still hold on to core traditional Filipino values.  As I grew up our values differed, causing a bit of distance in our relationship since it was easier for me to assimilate than it was for them.

The reason for our differences in assimilating came down to finding a way to survive.

The main reason my parents wanted to move to the U.S. was for me to have a better education. So they saved up enough to get me into a Catholic school where I stayed until the 5th grade. When I started the first grade, it was already in the middle of the school year and everybody already had uniforms. I remember the first day of school; I went in there with tattered Puma sneakers and plain clothes. It took me a while to adjust, not just because I was an immigrant, but because I was a new person in a new school.

Soon the tuition became too much for my parents and we decided that I would go to continue in public school. My parent’s emphasis on schooling was so huge; they sent me a couple towns away so that I could attend a good junior high and high school in a much better neighborhood. To them their goal was for me to study, get good grades, then become either a lawyer, engineer, or doctor/nurse. But in sending me to a good junior high and high school I started to see more options than what they had in mind.

My experience has taught me that regardless of your degree, you can still acquire skills that will lead you to countless wonderful career opportunities.

During college application time, I applied for engineering at NYU and received a decent enough financial package for my parents to support my decision. Unfortunately, when NYU learned about my immigration status they pulled their offer. Instead, I went down to the CUNY central office and randomly picked City College of New York, where I ended up going. It was too late to get into the engineering programs, so I chose psychology. I worked very hard in school and became an undergrad fellow and the top candidate for a PhD program in Criminal Justice. But the same situation with financial aid happened again. Fortunately I spoke with some faculty who knew the right people and I was able to continue in the program.

What I’ve learnt from my experiences is this: there are influential people in industry, government agencies, and educational institutions; I call these people gatekeepers.  There is always a gatekeeper somewhere, and you should build an authentic relationship with them, so you can help them out. In return a gatekeeper will look out for you and pass along opportunities.

I never finished my PHD; I was close but I think I was always a little bitter about my financial aid situation, along with having some life struggles. I lost the motivation and energy to continue, so I left with my Master’s degree. My gatekeepers happened to look the other way, and that is how I slipped through the cracks when it came to my career and education.

Eventually I began working for Upward Bound, an after-school program that serves low-income first generation students. In my position there, I helped about tow hundred students with going to college and helped them win over one million dollars in grants and scholarships. I knew that I couldn’t move up in position or title, so I began to feel stuck. The reason I kept doing it was because I didn’t want to see anyone’s potential wasted – I didn’t want them to feel like me, so I started my own organization.

In 2013 I formed GrantAnswers LLC which is an award-winning, NYC-based company that provides services & tools for securing academic and career opportunities. A year later, was awarded a Social Innovation prize from the Zahn Innovation Center. In Spring 2016 we will be launching KeyJargon, an app that will allow people to gain communications skills to launch their careers. Everyone deserves to have a strong support system. Through my experience and work I strive to help those find their way to a future they can be proud of.

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